Layla the Alaskan Malamute Delights in Reading Sessions with Children

Sep 13, 2017
Photo by: David Biggy

When asked if she liked the book Teagan Shutes had just read, Layla didn’t hesitate in letting out a cooing growl-like howl. The sound had a happy, controlled tone as she bounced up from a prone position and thrust her front paws out in front of her. It was clear the furry Alaskan malamute was pleased.

“Layla gets excited to see the kids and hear the stories,” said Amy Novak, Layla’s owner and trainer. “She loves coming here and doesn’t want to leave when it’s time to go.”

Layla was on hand Saturday, Sept. 9, at the Stafford branch of the Ocean County Library as part of the “Read to a Dog” program, designed to give children who struggle with reading in front of others, or those who simply like to read, the opportunity to do so before “a non-judgmental audience.”

“Layla loves the interaction,” Novak said. “It doesn’t matter which book is being read to her or how much the reader might struggle with certain words or sentences. She doesn’t judge. She’s always happy with somebody just reading to her.”

The 11-year-old malamute, certified as a therapy dog through Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs based in Morris Plains, has been in service for the past nine years and got started with the Ocean County Library System eight years ago. The 70-pound, 23½-inch-tall dog occasionally visits nursing home residents as well.

Each month, Novak brings Layla – as well as therapy-dog-in-training Enda, an almost 3-year-old malamute – to the library to be a willing participant in reading books with kids.

“If a child doesn’t want to pick a book, Layla will pick her own,” Novak said. “I select two options from the shelf, put them on the floor, half-opened, and, when commanded to pick one, she goes and grabs a book.”

Of course, Layla knows if she does all she’s commanded, snacks await. And there’s always water in the black thermal bag bearing her name.

“She listens well, when there’s cheese around,” Novak said. “But sometimes she’s too excited and doesn’t want to sit still too much. In those instances, which haven’t been many, I shorten up her leash and don’t let her get up. I discreetly keep her in one place.”

Novak said some months there are a dozen or more children in attendance. But with the Ocean County Irish Festival going on a half-block away on Saturday, the youngsters at the library were few. Teagan, who had once previously read to Layla, was the only one who showed up.

“I like dogs, so I like reading to her,” said the 8-year-old third-grader from Waretown, whose lone pet at home is a bearded dragon named Desert. “I’m a good reader and reading helps me learn about the world. I like reading nonfiction more than fiction. It’s fun to read.”

Teagan, who started with Curious George books about four years ago, read a pair of Elephant & Piggie books to Layla, the second of which was titled “Elephants Cannot Dance.” The young blonde girl gently stroked Layla’s back as she read. When Teagan was done, Layla growled her delight again and followed up with a high-five.

“I love reading, so I originally wanted to find a way for Layla to love reading, too,” Novak said. “Her reaction to it inspired me to find ways that she could have more interaction with other people. That’s when she became a therapy dog.

“Malamutes are independent and have big egos, so this kind of interaction for her is great. And it’s great for the people she helps through the therapy. What’s funny is she’s really quiet at home, but not when she’s out in public. She wants the attention. The reading therapy is more one-on-one, but she really loves it.”

Last month, Layla had to miss her reading session “because she got skunked that morning,” Novak said. Typically, the Saturday session runs for about an hour.

“Layla likes coming to the Stafford branch,” Novak said. “She knows the route to get here, so when we’re close she’s in the back of the car howling and making all kinds of noise.”

To find out when Layla will be back at the library, check the calendar of events on the Ocean County Library System’s website,

— David Biggy

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